No Compensation: Drone Killing of Western Hostages Reveals Glaring Double Standard on Civilian Deaths

CIA drone strikeNo one remotely interested in US foreign policy can ignore the fact that massive civilian death has become an integral part of US warfare. Often termed “collateral damage”, these deaths are explained as the inevitable outcome of US hi-tech weaponry which often cannot discriminate between legal targets and innocent bystanders. Nonetheless, we can gain valuable insight into the reigning moral culture of certain societies by examining how powerful actors who wield these weapons respond to these deaths. Are the deaths acknowledged with remorse and sympathy or are they simply written off as the consequence of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”? Sometimes the news cycle offers us case studies to test this question.

Such a case study can be observed in the killing of two western hostages, Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. An American and an Italian, they were killed in a US drone strike targeting a “suspected Al Qaeda compound,” in Pakistan. As the Wall Street Journal reported “The incident also underscores the limits of U.S. intelligence and the risk of unintended consequences in executing a targeted killing program that human-rights groups say endangers civilians.” That drone strikes “endanger civilians” has been well documented for several years by reputable organizations like Reprieve and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Latest statistics reveal between 2,449 and 3,949 people have been killed in Pakistan since 2004. Of that figure between 421 and 960 were civilians (172-207 children killed). Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan are among the other countries targeted by drone strikes with the civilian death toll in Yemen between 65 and 96.

Unlike the tragic deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, none of these deaths elicited serious commentary within the US press beyond the predictable dismissal of unfortunate “collateral damage.” In fact, this indifference sometimes ventured into pure callousness. Take for example White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ response to the extrajudicial killing of Denver born teenager Abdulrahman Awlaki, a killing Attorney General Eric Holder rationalized on the grounds that he was “not specifically targeted.” After being asked by a reporter why this strike was authorized, Gibbs coldly replied that Abdulrahman “should have had a more responsible father,” a reference to Anwar Awlaki who was killed weeks before his son met the same fate. Needless to say, Gibbs would be ridiculed as a mindless sociopath if he expressed a similar sentiment in response to the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, who, like Abdulrahman Awlaki, were not implicated in any crime. So the question is where does this indifference come from and, more importantly, what measures can be instituted to overcome it. Scholarship has plenty to say in this regard. MIT professor John Tirman explores this in his exhaustive study of civilian deaths The Death of Others. “The very fundamental norm of nation building and national survival as enabled by violence against savages,” Tirman observes, “is enormously consequential for how the deaths of the savages will be viewed.”

Further into the text Tirman adds:

“Correlating beliefs in a just world with beliefs in American ‘values’ is an essential addendum to understanding indifference … It is a foundation of American culture and has been from the beginning, and it powerfully shapes the attitudes and behavior of Americans from childhood. In its sheer explanatory power for the ‘American experience,’ it really has no rivals. It is an account of the entire scope of European immigration, expansion, and subjugation of the indigenous tribes, class conflict, and finally, American globalism.”

Therefore, engaging with the roots of American indifference to the deaths of others entails far more than merely becoming more “sensitive” to civilian suffering but a much more fundamental reevaluation in our complicity in crimes against humanity and what we can do to terminate these crimes given our ability to influence state policy. Recent polling illustrates that such an engagement has been severely lacking. Global polls published by Pew Research reveal the US as an international outlier in their support for drone strikes. Opposition in other countries is not only held by majorities but overwhelming majorities. In Lo Porto’s native Italy only 18% of its citizens supported drone strikes. MSNBCNevertheless, US public opinion has remained relatively stable in the face of these enormous costs to civilian populations abroad. It was only after the deaths of these two western hostages that MSNBC raised the question if US drone policy should be changed. If one believes in an afterlife, there were no doubt hundreds of Yemeni, Pakistani, and Somalian ghosts asking themselves why this question could not be raised after their deaths. The huge role that pure racism plays in entrenching popular indifference to non-western victims of drone strikes cannot be ignored. In Tirman’s words, “because of the long history of racism in America, its powerful political effects over the whole of American history, and its insinuation into U.S. expansion, its plausibility as the base of indifference is apparent.”

Further insight how racism serves as “the base of indifference” can be deciphered in the rules of engagement surrounding the Obama administration’s drone policy. In all the commentary that has flooded newspapers and television programs about these tragic killings, not one person has thought to ask what right the US has to bomb Pakistan in the first place. Legal questions of this kind are inconceivable. Instead we are subjected to presidential platitudes about the unintended outcomes inherent in the “fog of war.” Incidentally, this question about the legality of drone strikes is alive and well outside of circles of US power. PakistaniNot only has the Pakistani High Court in Peshawar condemned drone strikes as an act of aggression but UN official Ben Emerson has raised many, albeit mild, criticisms of the Obama administration’s drone program, particularly what he described as “a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” When Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar attempted to enter the US to testify about drone strikes his entry was blocked. “Before I started drone investigations I never had an issue with US visa. In fact, I had a US diplomatic visa for two years,” Akbar remarked when interviewed by the UK Guardian. None of these valiant efforts to shed light on the US drone program influenced US policy makers or public opinion in the slightest regard nor were there any polls on MSNBC (as there have been since the killing of the two western hostages) asking viewers to go online and vote if drone policy should be rethought.

There’s plenty more that could be said about the illegality and blatant immorality of a program world-renowned political dissident Noam Chomsky has described as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”, but these insights should suffice in exposing the glaring double standard that drives media discourse about drones and, by association, the hideous policies that increase civilian casualties outside the gaze of public scrutiny. Perhaps if the people of Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia could magically evolve into blonde haired, blue-eyed white people this conversation would have emerged earlier. It’s utterly disgraceful that it took the tragic deaths of two western aid workers for it to finally begin but that doesn’t diminish the significance of the fact that this conversation has begun and that’s a promising start for all genuinely concerned about human life both in the “west” and abroad.


The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars by John Tirman


Retail Realpolitik: Washington, The “Just God”, & The Islamic State in Iraq

CNNBreakingNewsIt’s standard for powerful states to justify the most egregious of crimes by cloaking it in obscure terminology. Torture becomes “enhanced interrogation”, kidnapping is “extraordinary rendition”, and civilian casualties are “collateral damage.” While moderate criminals limit themselves to mere terms, more ambitious crooks embrace entire schools of thought to legitimize their behavior. Take for example what’s called in international affairs scholarship realpolitik. Realpolitik proposes that “foreign policy ought not to be driven by the demands for justice,” and that “a society’s principles, no matter how deep-rooted or heartfelt, [have] to be compromised in the name of international stability.” These are the words of Princeton University political scientist Gary J. Bass in his description of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger employed this concept in his backing of the Pakistani genocide in East Bengal, one of his lesser known contributions to global “stability.”

Perhaps no other doctrine has been applied with as much consistency and rigor and this one. President Obama’s policies in the Middle East offer a textbook example. While providing support to “rebel factions” in Syria, he has authorized airstrikes against the closely associated Islamic State in Iraq. The consequences of these policies have been gruesome. One effect was graphically portrayed in the murder of Global Post journalist James Foley. Captured in Syria in 2012, Foley was beheaded by a member of the Islamic State. According to the killer, the murder was carried out in retaliation against the Obama administration’s decision to bomb Iraq after news surfaced that Iraqi Yazidis, driven from their homes by IS terror, were under siege atop Sinjar mountain.

“No just God would stand for what they did yesterday or every single day,” intoned Obama after receiving news of Foley’s murder. Without a doubt, IS has amply demonstrated their capacity for cruelty and indifference but this is obvious. Less obvious is how they arrived at this point and, furthermore, if Washington shares any responsibility in their rise. This deeply disturbing connection between US policy in the Middle East and the proliferation of sub-state terror has a long history. In symbolic terms, this connection could be discerned in Foley’s attire at the time of his execution. As the New York Times acknowledged in a recent report, “the video shows the journalist kneeling in a desert landscape, clad in an orange jumpsuit — an apparent reference to the uniforms worn by prisoners at the American military detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”

Aside from its transparent illegality, the existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp has long been recognized as a “recruitment tool” for terrorism. So unavoidable is this reality that even conservative outlets like the Council on Foreign Relations concede this. In a 2010 “expert roundup” report there was unanimous agreement on this fact. William Yeomans of the Washington College of Law described the prison as “a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists,” adding that a decision not to close the prison “would be calamitous.” Four years have passed since the publication of this report and 149 prisoners (more than half of them cleared for release) remain caged in this penal colony far outside the bounds of international law. And this isn’t the only case of the Obama administration consciously pursuing policies which escalate the threat of terrorism. For years, the Obama administration has ignored statements, even by those within his administration, that his drone assassination program—a campaign of international terrorism unparalleled in global affairs—is heightening the threat of terrorism.

In his penetrating study Obama and the Middle East: the End of America’s Moment? London School of Economics International Relations professor Fawaz Gerges states that “the Obama administration has so far been unwilling to acknowledge the link between escalation of hostilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the rising incidence of homegrown radicalization.” When the so-called Times Square bomber cited the Obama administration’s drone campaign as the reason for his attempt to set off a bomb in New York CIA chief John Brennan (then White House counterterrorism adviser) “dismissed the notion,” and “argued that the suspect was ‘captured by the murderous rhetoric of Al Qaeda and TTP [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] that looks at the United States as an enemy.'” Meanwhile, “in private deliberations, according to Bob Woodward, Obama’s national security team [appeared] to be aware that their policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan [helped] fuel radicalization and terrorism.” Even Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, in one of her more overlooked statements, addressed this dangerous linkage when she visited Obama in the White House. Incidentally, these crimes, unlike those of IS, received the blessing of Washington’s deity , presumably because the author of these atrocities internalized the “just war” doctrines of St. Augustine prior to engaging in acts of terror that that have left approximately 3,800 dead in Pakistan alone.
james foley Given this sordid history of terror-generating policies, it’s not the least bit surprising that the New York Times published a story on August 10 headlined US Actions in Iraq Fueled the Rise of a Rebel. Writing on the ascendancy of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Times observed “most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action.” This is but one of many reports highlighting the troubling intersection between US military aggression and the growth of subnational terror. While Global Post journalist Lauren Dean stated IS “was born out of a security vacuum left by the 2003 American invasion”, UK investigative journalist Robert Fisk described the brutality of IS as “the epic violence which our invasion unleashed.” Anyone serious about reversing the influence of IS would not dismiss these reports.

For example, no serious person would look at the US-instigated terror drowning the entire region in blood and urge “sudden”, “swift”, and “surgical” strikes against IS, but this is precisely what retired General John Allen called for in a recent piece published in Defense One. Portraying IS as a grave threat to America and Europe, General Allen implored the Obama administration to act “NOW” (he actually used all capital letters. A tell-tale sign of intellectual sobriety). Moreover, this military action would not limit itself to Iraq. It also would extend to Syria, “a failed state neither capable of acting as a sovereign entity nor deserving the respect of one.” Contrarily, the United States—the “greatest threat to world peace” according to a recent WIN/Gallup poll—is not a “failed state,” but “remains the only nation on the planet capable of exerting the kind of strategic leadership, influence and strike capacity,” to eradicate the IS “scourge.” Consequently, the UN initiative to provide technical support to the Iraqi government to aid imperiled Yazidis atop Sinjar Mountain is, as Gen. Allen describes the border between Syria and Iraq, “irrelevant.” Equally irrelevant is the analysis of distinguished scholars like Flynt Leverett. Appearing on Background Briefing with Ian Masters he remarked that “nothing will rehabilitate [ISIS] like being bombed by the United States.”
Destroy ISIS NOW

This clear record of the US instigating rather than diffusing terror is rarely, if ever, highlighted in the pages of the “free press.” Instead the public is treated with alarmist descriptions of a “the most despicable band of barbarians to plague the world since the Khmer Rouge.” Los Angeles Times columnist David Horsey used these terms to describe IS, a group that has inflicted such extreme levels of violence that “a comparison to the Nazis” would not be “an exaggeration.” Conversely, he describes the US invasion of Iraq—the “supreme crime” of military aggression under the standard of the Nuremberg Tribunal—as a “misguided and frustrating occupation” and a “past mistake.” Notice the problem with the occupation was not that it killed over half a million Iraqis while turning hundreds of thousands of others into refugees. Rather, it was the “frustration” of the occupiers unable to subdue a population by force, a standard view within the American intellectual class.

Quite apart from a “misguided” war, the assault on Iraq was a carefully guided and deliberate war crime. The horrors unfolding in Iraq cannot be properly understood unless this elementary reality is first acknowledged.  It’s worth recalling that Obama hailed the invasion of Iraq as a war that left the country “to its own people.” Omitted from this statement was the long record of state-terror the US has inflicted on Iraq from bombings under the First Gulf War, to the genocidal sanctions of the 1990s, to the 2003 invasion and subsequent destruction of Iraq’s central government. With the commencement of this aerial bombing campaign, Obama has opened another chapter in Washington’s multi-decade torture session of Iraqis. It shouldn’t require stating, but aerial bombing will only exacerbate the nightmare that has enveloped the region. The actions of the Obama administration are not only illegal—he authorized air strikes in violation of the War Powers Act and the UN Charter—but they evade viable, peaceful alternatives that would significantly lower the risk of more violence.

Perhaps this is just another iteration of presidential “realism.” As Harvard University scholar Stephen Walt stated in a recent article which appeared in Foreign Policy magazine “[Obama’s] style as president resembles Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone and Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in many ways. They don’t make many threats, they never bluster, and they rarely raise their voices. But when the time comes, they dispatch opponents with remorseless indifference and pay little attention to who might get hurt in the process. ‘It’s not personal; it’s strictly business.'” Likewise, IS murdered James Foley with “remorseless indifference.” Moreover, they paid “little attention to who might get hurt in the process.” Did not the “cancer” of IS merely emulate, in a less sophisticated form, the “realpolitik” of their despised foe albeit in a more “personal” fashion? Why then are we rightfully appalled by their heinous crimes, but coldly silent about our own? Perhaps these questions will be contemplated by the more honest among us who remain unconvinced by the harsh moral judgments of President Corleone’s “just God.”


Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? by Fawaz Gerges

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass–but-all-too-little-about-who-they-are-9681873.html

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide

bloodtelegramAnyone seeking to gain an understanding of the dominant moral culture of America’s intellectual class could learn a great deal by studying how they address the crimes of other states versus those of their own. The 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide just passed and prominent newspapers commemorated this atrocity with numerous op-eds and articles detailing the nightmarish horrors of those days. The New York Times editorial board remembered the killings as the day “the world stood by and let the blood bath happen.” In an effort to deal with the “unanswered questions” of the massacres the board urged France to “open its records to public examination.” It was necessary for the French to do this because they had “close relations to the Hutu-dominated government that planned and incited the genocide.” “Addressing the poisonous legacies of Rwanda’s genocide,” the board continued “is the only way to avert future tragedy,” and “the best way to honor Rwanda’s dead.” Here we can discern a clear principle, namely that governments which maintain “close relations” with genocidal regimes have a moral, if not legal, responsibility to disclose their internal records. This clear principle was not to be found in a May 15 Times editorial titled Unsolved Atrocities in Bangladesh. Instead of calling for Washington to “open its records to public examination” for the Nixon administration’s “close relations” with the genocidal regime in West Pakistan the board harshly condemned Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal for “harming its own credibility,” and displaying a “contempt for international standards of justice [that] appears to know no bounds.”

Amazingly, no one on the Times editorial board could see the irony of a paper that uncritically and aggressively circulated Bush administration lies in the run up to the Iraq war lecturing Bangladesh–a country that has never invaded anyone–about “international standards of justice.” Furthermore, there was no commentary on just how deep and unabiding the US role was in what the board calls the “horrific crimes committed during the country’s struggle for independence.” More than “horrific crimes”, Pakistan’s military assault on Bangladesh was, by any rational standard of international law, a genocide. Drawing from a vast documentary record of White House tapes, phone conversations, interviews and internal documents Gary J. Bass’ The Blood Telegram recounts this US-sponsored bloodbath in graphic detail. Conventional narratives portray the mass slaughters in Bangladesh as the gruesome byproduct of the India-Pakistan conflict with the US, at worst, “tilting” toward Pakistan. In reality, the US enthusiastically embraced the military dictatorship of Yahya Khan throughout, providing him with crucial military and ideological support to carry out the massacres. Yahya was, in the words of President Nixon, “a decent man.”

Prior to the onset of the killings East Bengal’s Mujibir Rahman won Pakistan’s first democratic election in a landslide victory (Mujibir’s Awami League won 167 out of 169 seats). All credible observers deemed the elections to be “free and fair.” The Nixon administration, firmly committed to a unified Pakistan and opposed to East Bengali autonomy, refused to recognize the outcome. Much like the Haitian election of Aristide and the Palestinian election of Hamas, the population of East Bengal voted “the wrong way,” in a free election. Yahya responded to this crime of democratic participation by shutting down the National Assembly, eliciting widespread protests throughout the east. Presented with the likely consequence of a killing spree the Nixon White House, at the insistence of Henry Kissinger, opted for a policy of “massive inaction.” Though the State Dept. warned of “a real blood-bath … comparable to the Biafra situation,” Nixon persisted in his support of Yahya, later qualifying his decision by saying “I didn’t like shooting starving Biafrans either.”

As the murders escalated, the Nixon administration worked vigorously to silence any critics within the State Dept. After US Consul General in Dhaka Archer Blood transmitted a telegram condemning Washington for its “moral bankruptcy” Kissinger derided him as that “maniac in Dacca.” Unlike the “realists” on Pennsylvania Avenue, Blood was “regarded as being squishy. Maybe a little too enamored with the Bengalis,” and “a little-soft headed” (words of White House Staffer Samuel Hokinson). For this act of dissent Blood was fired. Meanwhile, the Nixon administration continued to pour arms into Pakistan, even violating a US arms embargo, enlisting the Shah’s Iran and Jordan to provide Pakistan with jet bombers, an act acknowledged to be criminal in internal discussions. When the killing subsided, the civilian death toll reached conservative estimates of 300,000. Other credible estimates place the toll at one million dead. Reviewing the success of this campaign against dissent, Henry Kissinger exhaled “No one can bleed anymore about the dying Bengalis.”

The Mukti Bahini.
The Mukti Bahini.

Among those bleeding over “dying Bengalis” was the Indian army. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi supported the independence struggle of East Bengal, first through arming and training a guerilla insurgency, the Mukti Bahini, then through a military invasion on December 3, 1971. When Indian troops began bombing Pakistan the White House erupted in hysterics. Kissinger called the Indian invasion the “rape of an ally”, an act of unprovoked aggression. Not only did this characterization overlook the fact that Pakistan bombed India’s airfields in Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh prior to the Indian attack but when Kissinger made this statement the US was participating in an actual act of military aggression in its terrorist war against the people of Indochina. Inconvenient realities of this kind did not interfere with the Nixon administration’s policy of treating the genocide as a purely “internal matter” between the western and eastern regions of Pakistan. Washington’s subversion of the 1970 elections and arming of the military dictatorship as it carried out mass murder was not deemed interference in an “internal matter.” This was an attempt to prevent Bangladesh from becoming, in Kissinger’s words, “a ripe field for Communist infiltration.” On the other hand, capitalist “infiltration” was perfectly legitimate, even at the cost of over 300,000 lives.

When pressured to put pressure on Yahya to stop the killings Nixon said "Don't squeeze Yahya."
When pressured to get Yahya to stop the killings Nixon said “Don’t squeeze Yahya.”

And the human costs could have been significantly worse. In a shockingly disproportionate show of force, Nixon sent a nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, into the Bay of Bengal. The purpose of this “atomic-powered bluff” was to coerce India into abandoning its military campaign in Pakistan. When the American press sought Kissinger’s reaction to Indians outraged by this brazen threat he replied “What the Indians are mad at is irrelevant.” Suppose in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis Nikita Khrushchev responded to American fears of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba by saying “What the Americans are mad at is irrelevant.” Would this response elude historical memory as easily as Kissinger’s remark? Incidentally, Khrushchev would be more justified in making such a statement since he wasn’t putting nuclear missiles in Cuba to abet a genocidal campaign in Havana. The threat of nuclear war was also narrowly averted when the Chinese decided not to mobilize its forces on India’s borders. Kissinger requested that the Chinese send troops to India’s borders to deliver a message that their intervention in Pakistan was intolerable. Despite this grave danger to humanity “Kissinger still insisted on backing China in a spiraling crisis.” Kissinger felt it was necessary to cooperate with China in order to lay the groundwork for Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1972. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Bengalis had to die in the process mattered little to his strategic calculus. Well aware of the risk this policy entailed, Nixon put it in “Armageddon terms”, saying “the Chinese move and the Soviets threaten and then we start lobbing nuclear weapons.”

Buried beneath the Cold War politics and superpower maneuvering that dominates discussions in educated circles, Bass places the mass killings in Bangladesh’s war of liberation in proper historical context. Bangladesh, he notes, “ought to rank with Vietnam and Cambodia among the darkest incidents in Nixon’s presidency and the entire Cold War.” Surely, in a society free from ideological restraints that hail war criminals as foreign policy gurus this would be the norm. Two years after the 1971 genocide “a Gallup poll found that [Henry Kissinger] was the most admired person in the United States.” In May 2013 the University of Bonn honored Kissinger with a professorship for international relations and international law, describing him as “one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century and a brilliant scholar.” One can easily imagine the hundreds of thousands of Bengali civilians killed by US arms under the Yahya dictatorship struggling to see the “brilliance” in orchestrating the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children. Predicting the public response to his administration’s backing of Yahya, Nixon stated that “people don’t give a shit whether we’re to blame–not to blame–because they don’t care if the whole goddamn thing goes down the cesspool.” This statement reverberates in the omissions of the New York Times , award ceremonies for war criminals and other illustrations of historical amnesia that make the atrocities in East Bengal a “forgotten genocide”; forgettable to the aggressors, evidence of our “contempt for international standards of justice” to the victims.



The Godfather’s Wish for Ukraine

The Subject:

XB: *Disclaimer: Unless you’re in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Iraq or any other country where we want to send drones.

MG: only to preserve their independence. Which of this countries did US anex? none!

MZ: You forgot about Egypt

XB: Bombing Pakistani civilians from the sky does not help them preserve independence. It violates their independence. This is even conceded by the Peshawar High Court in Pakistan which considers drone strikes a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

Throughout history military superpowers have reflexively justified their resort to violence by saying they were carrying it out for the good of the country they are invading. Fascist Japan did this, Germany did this, France did this and the British Empire did this. Thinking people ignore such statements because they are entirely predictable.

You also ask which countries did the US annex. Did you forget that the US wouldn’t exist if it were not for the annexation of half of Mexico and the Mexican-American war, a war that continued a genocidal campaign against America’s original inhabitants?

Or if this is too remote, what about the annexation of Hawaii or Puerto Rico? These territories were stolen by the US. In the case of Puerto Rico there is still a Puerto Rican independence movement.

Incidentally, I should note that even if the US annexed zero countries throughout it’s history this is the wrong thing we should be focusing on. What we should be focusing on is the impact of US intervention in other countries.

If we focus on this I think President Obama’s words about upholding ideals of independence become more transparent for the lies they are. The US only believes in independence when doing so conforms with its strategic and economic interests. This is how States and power systems behave. Everything else is public relations.


GC: For a good cause.!! …. is the key!

XB: @GC: Are you arguing that the US bombs other countries for a good cause? I don’t understand your comment.

@MZ: I also forgot about Palestine, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and a host of other countries. Indeed, the list is long.

AI: All those countries governments are typically notified about the drone use prior to any attacks. Their governments coordinate with the US military and often supply the intelligence….. The reason why these governments and their officials don’t announce their cooperation with the US forces is because they will most likely not get re-elected, because the public is often ignorant and attaches to statements like the one you have just said….

DS: I have an idea, XB…how ’bout the US stop all foreign aid, and use those wasted tax dollars to fix our own problems? Go back to a policy of isolationism. If the rest of the world can’t keep up, too bad. Adapt, adopt, improvise…or cease to exist.

XB: @AI: What difference does it make that the country being bombed is notified prior to them being attacked? Would you support another country bombing the US and killing American civilians as long as they notified the US government before they did it? Drone strikes are clearly in violation of international law which restricts the use to force those who have received UN Security Council authorization. In the case of Obama’s drone strikes not only has he not received such authorization but he didn’t even try to get authorization.

Then there’s the fact that it’s illegal for the CIA, which runs the drone program, to participate in war. This is even conceded in the Yale International Law Journal. Here scholar Andrew Burt notes the following:

“In what ways, then, are civilian CIA drone operators legally distinct from the unprivileged belligerents they target? A strong argument exists that if civilians are operating armed drones, they assume a ‘continuous combat function’ and thus are unlawfully taking a direct part in hostilities based on their status. If so, then according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), they would be considered an ‘armed organized group’ and apparently legally indistinguishable from the terrorists they target.”

I should add Burt is not an opponent of drone warfare but even he can see that drone strikes, in their current form, expose the US to credible accusations of criminality (he calls the argument I cited above “strong.”) Aside from this, drones disproportionately murder innocent civilians. UN official Ben Emmerson recently cited 30 separate attacks that require “public explanation.”

You are also ignoring some other relevant facts. Last December the parliament in Yemen “called for a stop to drone attacks in a symbolic vote that reflected growing public anxiety about Washington’s use of the unmanned aircraft to combat al Qaeda in the impoverished country.” In this same month the UN “adopted the resolution calling on US … to comply with international law.” President Obama most recently boycotted a conference on drones. Why do you think he boycotted the conference? If it’s a legitimate exercise of military force why would he do this? The answer isn’t obscure.

Your comment that “the public is often ignorant and attaches to statements like the one you have just said,” is also worth examining. A brief look a global public opinion reveals that clear majorities or pluralities in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North Africa are opposed to drone strikes. 90% of Greeks are against it. 59% of Germans are against drones and 76% of Spanish citizens oppose drone strikes.

To quote the Pew report “A 2012 survey of 19 countries plus the U.S. found that, in 17 of them, more than half disapproved of the U.S. conducting drone strikes to target extremists. The policy was particularly unpopular in majority Muslim nations, but it also faced disapproval in Europe and other regions as well.” Would you include the populations of all these countries in the “ignorant” public that “attaches to statements” like the one I just said?

Now with this wealth of legal analysis, rulings and global public opinion data it’s worth asking why this information is not well known. The answer is unambiguous and quite ugly namely that the Obama administration doesn’t give a damn about what the victims of US policy think or what the populations in other countries think, even when opposition is as overwhelming as the figures I just cited.

If any public is filled with “ignorance” on this topic it’s the American public, where a majority of citizens (65%) support drone strikes, a real outlier in global public opinion. I should say it’s not entirely the fault of the American public. I think the vast indifference in America to drone strikes is a natural consequence when we have a corporate media that fails to or inadequately covers any of the relevant information I just mentioned .

In a free society the views of the public should have some influence in policy making. It’s in this spirit that I criticize the drone policy, not to lead on an “ignorant” public. By the way, your argument that Obama’s drone bombings are legitimate because he notifies the government of those countries carries an interesting logical conclusion.

If it’s fair for Obama to bomb Pakistan, Yemen or any other country because he notified the government, was the Russian invasion of Crimea also legitimate? The Russians have claimed that Yanukovych requested they intervene in Crimea. If true, would this justify Russia’s intervention? I don’t think it would.

@ DS: I think what you are calling US “aid” is a bit misleading. I also think your statement has an underlying assumption that the US is a benevolent empire constantly sticking its neck out for the poor and dispossessed. I don’t agree with this portrayal. Much of the aid the US provides to the world is military aid. If the US dramatically cut back on military aid I would support it enthusiastically. I also think we should be giving reparations, not aid, to the several countries in the world we have devastated. Iraq would be a good start. After this is done then I would accept an isolationist policy.






The State of the Union Address: An Exercise in Moral Illiteracy

gty_barack_obama_state_union1_wy_140128_16x9_992Presidential statements should always be treated with a great deal of skepticism. The capacity to obscure, fabricate or lie is a skill that comes easily to political elites and the commissars who construct the required narratives to insulate them from public scrutiny. For this reason, anyone with a minimal interest in democratic governance will not passively accept the pronouncements of the powerful. President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to this ideal, a commitment that should be treated with a high degree of seriousness and urgency. Generally, press responses to the State of the Union speech conformed to the typical pattern of distortion and deceit. Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey of the Los Angeles Times published an article shortly after Obama’s address titled State of the Union: Obama asks Congress to reverse economic inequality. The most revealing aspect of this article is its willingness to accept presidential statements at face-value. Obama “promised to flex his power to boost wages, protect the environment and channel resources to education …,” Parsons and Hennessey remarked.

More independent minds would be compelled to inspect the accuracy of this statement. How exactly did President Obama vow to “protect the environment”? The president conveyed this by “[reminding] listeners of his power to regulate power-plant emissions, noting that the shift to cleaner energy would require ‘tough choices,'” or to cite one of the more dramatic phrases from Obama’s address: “climate change is a fact.” Without a doubt, climate change is an undeniable fact, not only to the President of the United States but to all serious climate scientists as well, which makes Obama’s other statements nothing short of alarming. Hailing the prospect of “energy independence”, Obama went on to endorse oil production and the highly destructive process of hydraulic fracturing. “The ‘all the above’ energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working,” the president gushed. “And today America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades … One of the reasons why is natural gas. If extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change,” and “it’s not just oil and natural gas production that’s booming; we’re becoming a global leader in solar too.”

cartoon frackingIn response to Obama’s glorification of the “booming” oil and natural gas industry founder Bill McKibben published a harsh critique in which he stated “Fracking isn’t a solution,” but “a disaster for communities and the climate.” Characterizing Obama’s address as “lip service”, McKibben went on to note “you can’t say you care about ending cancer and then go buy a carton of cigarettes–and you can’t say you care about the climate and then go dig up more fossil fuels.” Executive Director of Greenpeace Phil Radford responded to Obama’s address by acknowledging while it was “good to hear that President Obama plans to move forward with his plan to address climate change,” (a curious preface) “his administration continues to undermine this plan by encouraging the extraction of coal, oil and gas from our public lands and waters, unlocking huge quantities of carbon pollution.” None of these grim realities are likely to penetrate the president’s entrepreneurial cocoon where the “booming” profits of oil giants override grave issues of collective survival. Incidentally, it’s not difficult to imagine the majority of the international community joining McKibben and Radford in their protests.

Last November the Obama administration demonstrated its willingness to “protect the environment” when they dispatched a team of diplomats to “delay emission cut commitments” at the UN climate conference in Warsaw. Details of this policy was revealed by Nitin Sethi of The Hindu. Sethi cited a leaked memo which instructed US diplomats to resist any effort on the part of the international community to bring the US into a system “where there is a legal compensation mechanism available for small, vulnerable countries, who otherwise don’t have [a] voice …” in global climate policy. In a message to US diplomats prior to the conference Secretary of State John Kerry warned that “A central issue will be whether loss and damage continues to fall within adaptation or whether it becomes a separate, third pillar … which we believe would lead the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] to focus increasingly on blame and liability, which in turn would be counterproductive.” Contemplating the consequences of ignoring the risk of environmental catastrophe, President Obama expressed his desire “to be able to say yes we did” when “our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world …,” but for the children of Bangladesh, the Philippines or the Maldives such desires would be “counterproductive”, an impediment to satisfying the higher needs of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other beneficiaries of the nation’s flourishing fossil fuel mafia.
drone_protest_pti_reuters_670Similar tendencies characterized the very limited attention devoted to matters of US foreign policy. Maybe the most glaring omission was the decision not to talk about what Noam Chomsky has accurately described as “the most extreme terrorist campaign going on in the world today”, the drone assassination program. Obama vowed to “[impose] prudent limits” on the drone program, a toothless proposal as it leaves unaddressed the fact that the program is clearly illegal. Drone strikes not only violate Pakistani sovereignty but they also violate the long-standing prohibition against extrajudicial assassinations as articulated in Executive Order 12036 and the Hague Conventions. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, arguably the leading authority on drone strikes, has reported that more than 2,400 people have been murdered in these attacks in the last five years. Bureau analysis also confirmed that following Obama’s high-profile speech on constraining drone strikes “more people were killed in Pakistan and Yemen in the six months after the speech than the six months before. And the casualty rate also rose over the same period.”

With the exception of a small minority of countries, global public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to drone strikes. Pew Research reports “in 31 of 39 countries surveyed last spring, at least half of the public disapproved of the attacks.” This past December the Yemeni the parliament passed a law banning drone strikes citing “the importance of protecting all citizens from any aggression” and “preserving the sovereignty of Yemeni air space.” Pakistan’s High Court in Peshawar raised similar legal objections in their ruling that drone strikes constitute “criminal offenses” carried out in violation of Pakistani sovereignty and present a challenge to Pakistan’s “autonomy and independence.” For President Obama to call for the imposition of more “prudent limits” on a policy the Yemeni parliament and a Pakistani judicial body have accurately condemned as military “aggression” (more bluntly, international terrorism) is about as morally and legally sensible as an al-Shabab fighter or a Taliban warlord suggesting more “prudent limits” on acid attacks and car bombings.  Investigate journalist Jeremy Scahill said it best in a tweet shortly after Obama’s address: ” Translation: I will only bomb *some* wedding parties.”
edward-snowden-interview-vom-ndr-german-engli-L-EGmgvuWhere drone terrorism received sparse coverage, other topics were ignored almost entirely. Since his revelations last June, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has fundamentally transformed the national conversation about privacy, security, journalism and the role of state-corporate forces in our lives. So profound has Snowden’s impact been that even the New York Times, the epitome of establishment journalism, published an editorial demanding that President Obama “tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.” Norwegian politicians Baard Vegar Solhjell and Snorre Valen have now nominated Snowden for a Nobel Peace Prize citing his “[contribution] to a more stable and peaceful world order.”  Furthermore, public opinion polls have been critical of NSA programs. According to a recent USA Today / Pew Research Center poll “most Americans now disapprove of the NSA’s sweeping collection of phone metadata,” and “they’re inclined to think there aren’t adequate limits in place to what the government can collect.” 70% of Americans “say they shouldn’t have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism,” and 45% of the American public think Snowden’s exposures have “helped … the public interest” (43% say the disclosures “harm” public interest).To limit discussion of this highly consequential topic to an extremely brief and meaningless comment on “reform” evinces a contempt for democracy that eludes rational explanation. The limited treatment of this topic also exhibits a seething hatred of the “community of nations” victimized by the NSA, a community Obama hypocritically claimed Iranians would be able to “rejoin” if they are able to “convince” the godfather they “not building a nuclear bomb”, a nuclear bomb that only exists in the warped imaginations of western political elites and their loyalists in the commissar class (there is ample evidence of this).

In a recent interview with Edward Snowden broadcast on German television he responded to allegations within elite circles that his act of dissent was treasonous by making the following statement: “If I am a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all of my information to the American public, to American journalists who were reporting on American issues. If they see that as treason I think people really need to consider who do they think they are working for. The public is supposed to be their boss, not their enemy.” It’s this conception–that the public should be the boss of state and corporate power and not its servants–that President Obama, Congress and their associates in corporate America find so threatening and it’s this threat that compels them to force unpleasant facts about American political culture into the margins whether it be about climate change, state-terrorism or mass surveillance. Quite apart from preserving the state of the union by attending to the needs of the public, Washington elites and their corporate backers would much rather enrich themselves at any cost. The gap between official rhetoric and actual policy makes this transparently obvious. In its entirety, this year’s State of the Union address can best be described as an exercise in moral illiteracy, the hallmark of a political and intellectual culture that is either unable or unwilling to examine its own crimes in an honest and constructive fashion. Nothing about the current predicament we find ourselves in is graven in stone. Societies in the past have gone through worse forms of oppression. President Obama demanded that 2014 be a “year of action.” Putting aside the sincerity of this sentiment, it will be up to an informed and morally courageous public to ensure that this “year of action” doesn’t leave behind the wreckage that inevitably follows in societies that avoid serious self-reflection.


After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina & the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology

right pictureOfficial doctrine in imperial society requires that the crimes of enemy states be circulated as widely as possible irrespective of fact or the historical record. Deviation from this code of conduct invariably elicits a barrage of insults and verbal abuse. Passionate condemnations of dissidents are meant to illustrate the deep humanitarian sensibilities of the intellectual class, moved to speak out against those not sufficiently outraged over the crimes of others, real or perceived. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s After the Cataclysm deconstructs this deeply rooted tradition of imperial society and, in the process, exposes the fabrications, omissions, and flagrant lies of a well-oiled propaganda industry. Reviewing both the scholarly and journalistic record on post-war Indochina, Herman and Chomsky reveal a persistent tendency in the US to obscure (if not ignore entirely) the decisive American role in the brutal destruction of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Rather than reflect seriously on the odious history of US savagery in Indochina, media accounts regularly portrayed the humanitarian consequences of the imperial assault as a quintessential expression of the evils of “communism.” Meanwhile, the US record of chemical warfare, indiscriminate murder of civilians and diplomatic sabotage remained safely concealed from public scrutiny. It was probably for this reason that President Jimmy Carter, a Nobel Laureate who used human rights rhetoric as a basis for his presidency, was able to evade US responsibility for the massive suffering in Vietnam by claiming “the destruction was mutual.” The US destroyed South Vietnam under the pretext that they were defending its inhabitants from northern “aggression.” This bombing occurred despite the fact that  “about half of the population of the South supported the [National Liberation Front]” (official US government estimate).

One of the more transparently criminal operations in the US attack on the NLF was the Phoenix program. Former intelligence officer K. Barton Osborne described the program in an official testimony as “a sterile depersonalized murder program,” with “no cross-check”, “no investigation”, and “no second options.” Interestingly, President Obama’s drone assassination program mirrors the Phoenix program in many ways, excepting the fact that it’s more “sterile” and “depersonalized” than its predecessor. In addition to the material and human damage the US attack on Vietnam caused, it also destroyed the Vietnamese economy. In an attack on Vietnam’s agrarian-based economy, the US bombing devastated the countryside creating a mass population of internally displaced refugees. US bombing campaigns against the montagnard population was particularly brutal driving hundreds of thousands of people off their land (conservative estimates say a minimum of 125,000 people were forcibly expelled from their territory.) All of this information went completely ignored in the elite media and when alluded to was attributed to the so-called “logic” of “communism.”

Equal attention is given to the US aggression in Laos. CIA subversion was vital in undermining any possibility of democratic governance in Laos. This subversion included an attempt to manipulate Laotian elections in 1958 and ,after failing in this effort, backing “a Thai based military attack against the [Pathet Lao] government …”, a government “recognized by the United States.” Hostilities of this kind were submerged beneath orientalist rhetoric about “lovely little Laos” and its “gentle folk” victimized by North Vietnamese communists. Laotian Vice Foreign Minister Khamphay Boupha informed an American representative in Laos that “the US has dropped 3 million tons of bombs–one ton per head,” and “forced 700,000 peasants to abandon their fields.” Much like the US attack on Vietnam the US bombing of Laos also inflicted severe economic costs on the Laotian people. A harsh drought and a US-backed Thai blockade aggravated the economic crisis in the form of food shortages and an “exodus of skilled technicians.” Filtered through the propaganda industry the plight of Laos was described as follows: “Little Laos is in fact tragically caught between the anvil and the hammer: a pawn of the Vietnamese as the front line of defense against Thailand and a client of the Soviet Union in its big power competition with China.”

Excluded from this picture entirely was the United States which at the time was “[refusing] to send any of its rice surplus to Laos (the world’s largest) , despite impending starvation.” The reason for not interfering to stop this US instigated plague of mass starvation was that such an act would “appear to be pro-communist” (official excuse of the White House). In 1975 the US “cut off its malaria prevention program.” Statements from foreign doctors described this decision as responsible for “killing adults and children indiscriminately, infecting pregnant women, and weakening many people so that they cannot work.” Unexploded ordinance is the lasting legacy of the US attack on Laos. During the war thousands were killed by these “golf-ball sized bombs containing explosives and steel bits released from a large canister.” Today this “war debris” continues to maim and murder the people of Laos.

Perhaps the most consequential section of Chomsky and Herman’s study, in terms of the discussion it generated and the insight it provides in regard to imperial ideology, is that on the US media’s role in distorting the post-war situation in Cambodia. Fake photographs, misquotations, and unverifiable allegations characterized this campaign of misinformation. Special attention is devoted to the media response to Francois Ponchaud’s book Cambodia: Year Zero. Among the assertions made in Ponchaud’s book that escaped critical examination was his claim that the killings in Cambodia were centrally organized and directed by the Khmer government. This unverified assertion conflicted with other credible reports that attributed the massacres to peasants, independent of government control, seeking vengeance for the utterly devastating effects of the US bombings of the Cambodian people. Though glossed over or ignored in media treatment of post-war Indochina, the US military destroyed Cambodia in 1973. Cambodia scholar Laura Summers reported that US B-52s “pounded Cambodia for 160 consecutive days, dropping more than 240,000 short ton bombs on rice fields, water buffalo [and] villages …” This tonnage represented “50 percent more than the conventional explosives dropped on Japan during World War II.” In a sharp departure from conventional narratives about post-war Cambodia Summers concluded that the Khmer revolution was “the expression of deep cultural and social malaise unleashed by a sudden and violent foreign assault on the nation’s social structure.”

One striking feature about the US attack on Cambodia and the media response is how closely it resembles the current discussion surrounding the drone bombings in northern Pakistan. In the case of Cambodia the bombings were conducted under the pretext that they were harboring “Viet Cong guerrillas” from Vietnam. Similarly, Pakistani villages are regularly bombed under the pretext that “terrorists” are hiding in the tribal areas. In both cases, the mass murder of civilians is ignored along with elementary principles of international law. In March of 1969, the year the US officially initiated its air war against Cambodia, the Cambodian government protested the killing of “peaceful Cambodian farmers,” adding that “these criminal acts must immediately and definitively stop …” Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk organized a press conference shortly thereafter on March 28th. At this press conference he made it known that “unarmed and innocent people have been the victims of US bombs,” and in “the latest bombing, the victims … were Khmer peasants, women and children in particular.” In accord with the requirements of the “free press” these protests went unreported. In fact, the US circulated false reports claiming the Cambodian government welcomed the attack.

More than any other book, this text is often cited by propagandists as proof of Chomsky’s “support” for the Khmer Rouge. A simple reading of this book reveals this accusation to be a bad joke at best and at worst a slanderous lie. The purpose of the Cambodia section, and the book as a whole, is stated repeatedly and unambiguously; namely, to illustrate how “available facts were selected, modified, or sometimes invented to create a certain image offered to the general population”, that “the performance of the Free Press in helping to reconstruct a badly mauled imperial ideology has been eminently satisfactory,” and “the only casualties have been truth, decency and the prospects for a more humane world.” In short, the core objective of this text was to demonstrate the capacity for servility within the American intellectual classes, their ability to parrot information without the slightest regard for historical context or documentary evidence. This capacity for servility is regularly renewed in the aftermath of  US imperial projects, the latest being the rape of Fallujah, which is now described as the US military’s effort to “pacify” a violent Iraqi insurgency. Chomsky and Herman’s careful study is, in this respect, an enduring moral refutation of faith-based journalists, scholars and the horrendous crimes of state in which they play a decisive ideological role.


The Washington Connection & Third World Fascism by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

Obama & the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment?

9781137278395A recent article published in Mother Jones magazine headlined “Barack Obama’s Had a Pretty Damn Good Presidency” praises the current administration for its “top achievements” in foreign and domestic policy. Consistent with prevailing attitudes, Kevin Drum cites “[ending] the war in Iraq”, “[reversing] Bush torture policies” and “[eliminating] Osama Bin Laden,” as three of Obama’s several signature accomplishments. The fact that Drum was able to list these as “achievements” is a testament to the depth of historical illiteracy that has come to occupy such a prominent position in American journalistic circles. Fortunately, scholarship exists to challenge these ideological conventions. Fawaz Gerges’ Obama and the Middle East offers an insightful picture of Obama’s policies in the Middle East with a historical context that demolishes talk about presidential “achievements.” Spanning generations from the early years of the Cold War to the present, Gerges’ traces the “structural-institutional continuity,” that has shaped presidential policies in the Middle East. The genesis of US interventionism in the Middle East can be examined in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected premier Mohammad Mossadegh.

Mossadegh entered US cross hairs in 1951 when he nationalized the Iranian oil industry, freeing the country from the economic grip of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP). Truman responded to this move by adopting a plan conceived by Winston Churchill to “neutralize” the democratic leader and “restore the shah’s authority.” Truman’s policy was implemented under the Eisenhower administration on August 19th 1953 when the CIA in coordination with British intelligence deposed Mossadegh, ensuring the shah’s return to power and condemning ordinary Iranians to decades of US-backed tyranny. A “fifty-fifty profit sharing” agreement was installed under the control of “an international consortium  of western oil companies,” and Mossadegh was sentenced to three years in prison. Shortly after news of the coup reached the US the New York Times Editorial page hailed the fall of Mossadegh as a warning to other leaders who choose to go “berserk with fanatical nationalism.” “It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran’s experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries,” the Times concluded. The scorn for democracy within elite circles that emerged in 1953 persists in 2013. One of the more recent illustrations of this culture of imperialism appeared on CNN when former Obama administration official Van Jones reminisced on the days when “the U.S. could just sort of thump out dictators like in Iran.” No one questioned Jones on who this “dictator” was or what gave the US the right to “thump” him out.

Alongside Gerges’ examination of the US destruction of Iranian democracy he also dedicates a large portion of the book to examining the US-Israeli alliance and how the “Israel-first” school has undermined the prospect for a regional peace settlement. Beginning after the 1967 war, the Israel-first school is based on “assumptions of cultural affinity, common values, and shared strategic interests,” between the US and Israel. “Israel’s utility as a deterrent force against Soviet regional allies,” (powers that disobey US demands) was the main “strategic interest” fulfilled, one that continues today in US-Israeli criminality in their efforts to isolate Iran. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and international terrorist Henry Kissinger is one of the major proponents of the Israel-first school. Among his major contributions to Middle East “peace” was his decision to sabotage a diplomatic initiative launched in 1969 by Secretary of State William P. Rogers. This initiative was designed “nudge the warring factions”–Israel and Egypt–“to accept a peace settlement.” “My aim was to produce a stalemate until Moscow urged compromise or until … some moderate Arab regime decided that the route to progress was through Washington,” Kissinger proudly stated. More than four decades later in 2011 President Obama honored Kissinger’s legacy of warlordism when he condemned the Palestinian Authority for pursuing a bid for statehood at the UN General Assembly. “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.,” Obama proclaimed before the General Assembly. In accord with Kissinger and the Israel-first doctrine “peace” would  only come “through Washington.”

These well-documented and verifiable historical parallels escape respected intellectuals and journalists like Kevin Drum who suggest that while Obama’s “national security” policies are “pretty bad” we should assess his record by “ordinary human standards, not by standards of perfection.” Yet Obama’s policies are not only “pretty bad” by “ordinary human standards” but flagrantly criminal by the standards of international humanitarian law, an observation that holds true in several domains. Take for example the Obama administration’s economic sanctions against Iran, routinely portrayed as a legitimate foreign policy instrument or, more absurdly, a peaceful alternative to war. In a departure from this preferred narrative Gerges cites the analysis of the prominent Iran scholar Gary Sick  who concludes that the US policy of “cutting off from the US financial system any foreign banks that continue to transact business with the Central Bank of Iran … is intended to prevent Iran from receiving payment for its oil.” Gerges adds that this is “the equivalent of an act of war and effectively a financial blockade of Iran’s oil ports that would deprive the country of more than half its budgetary revenues.” Incidentally, it’s fascinating to observe how this act of war resonates with US officials. A recent Foreign Policy article on the Treasury Department’s participation this economic assault quotes former US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker as completely dismissive of, if not gratified by, this culture of criminality. “The Iranians called [the sanctions] illegal and immoral, … The message I took away was that meant yes, the sanctions are working,” Crocker reportedly stated when questioned about the future of US policy.

Similar departures from orthodoxy can be found in Gerges’ commentary on the Iraq war. Unlike Drum he acknowledges that Obama did not “end” the war in Iraq but was forced to terminate the war or as he writes “Iraqi prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki could not accede to America’s demand and grant legal immunity to American soldiers if they violated the country’s laws … Fierce popular opposition inside Iraq to continuing the American military presence forced [Obama’s] hand. Afterward, the Obama policy team portrayed the military withdrawal from Iraq as the fulfillment of the president’s pledge when he campaigned for office.” These are crucial insights because they reveal that the assertion that Obama “ended” the war is not only unfaithful to the historical record but an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who courageously resisted US hegemony in forcing the withdrawal. In agreement with the “structural-institutional continuity” of the “free press” the urgent demands of the populations we punish are of marginal interest. After all, condemning President Obama for taking credit for the hard-won struggles of ordinary Iraqis wouldn’t meet the criteria of judging him by “ordinary human standards.” Such criticism  judges him by “standards of perfection.”

Gerges’ study is particularly timely in lieu of recent revelations in Rolling Stone magazine detailing how a US Special Operations unit euphemistically known as the A-Team participated in the kidnapping and murder of innocent Afghan villagers as a part of their so-called  counter-insurgency campaign. An accompanying video on the website shows an Afghan Security official brutally flogging a hogtied prisoner while US Special Forces indifferently watch. Apart from seriously calling into question Drum’s assertion that the Obama administration “reversed” Bush torture policies, this gruesome video is deeply symbolic of a culture of cruelty that has thoroughly permeated American political, academic, and media institutions. Indeed, the callous indifference of the US soldiers who witnessed this exercise in sadism is worthy of condemnation but how do we respond when an entire society adopts this reaction to much greater atrocities? How do we respond when a family from northern Pakistan visits Washington–as the Rehman family did recently–to expose the horrors of President Obama’s drone program and only five Congress members attend to hear their testimony? Are the Congress members who refused to attend any different from the soldiers coldly watching an act of torture as if it were an innocuous experiment? Are the journalists on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS and other channels morally distinguishable from these soldiers when they uncritically accept White House characterizations of dead civilians as “militants”? These are pertinent questions as we approach what may be the end of America’s “moment” in the Middle East, questions that we can begin to address more substantively through Gerges’ work.